The Camera Killer Paperback – Jul 17 2012
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About the Author
Thomas Glavinic is an influential Austrian novelist. Born in 1972, he is considered a guiding voice in Austrian literature. He’s written several novels and has won both critical acclaim and commercial success, winning prizes and topping Austria’s bestseller list. The Camera Killer won the Friedrich-Glauser Prize for crime fiction in 2002 and Glavinic was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2007. Pull Yourself Together reached number one on both the Austrian bestseller list and the Austrian Radio and Television critics’ list.
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Does it deserve this success? Well, before I get into the quality of the book, I should first point out that this is really more of a novella, barely topping 100 pages; typically, I prefer a little more "meat" to my books, and I don't think I'm alone. Still, if it's well-written, it can overcome this seeming flaw.
A lot of it is in fact well-written. The tale focuses on a horrendous killing in which a man kills two of three siblings (all under 10) and records it on film. This is not, however, a mystery story, but more of a psychological thriller about how the killings affect two couples who actually have little to do with the crime other than to be in the general area.
The unnamed narrator is a man who travels with his girlfriend, Sonja (who he typically refers to as "my partner") to the Austrian region of West Styria to stay with their friends Heinrich and Eva over the Easter weekend. When the killing takes place, they feel compelled to watch and read about the story. The video of the killing is shown on the news, drawing public protests but lurid interest by the four (especially the men). The fact that the killer is in the area arouses fear, particularly in Eva, but they stick around even as the police converge on the killer.
This is almost a good book, but it is undone at the very end by a plot twist that feels both unnecessary and a bit of a cheat. I won't say what happens, but to me it diminishes all that comes before it. I would imagine, however, that many will actually enjoy the ending even if I didn't. For me, it shows how a good book can be undone in its last two paragraphs, changing a four-or-five star work into a merely passable three.
On to the story - the book begins with a statement, and the rest of the story is in this format, detached, and dry. As I read further, I came to understand why this was part of the effect the author was going for, but I'll leave it to other readers to see if they agree with this or not.
Anyway, a young man and his partner Sonja travel to the Austrian countryside to spend a couple of days with their friends Heinrich and Eva. Meanwhile, a horrific event has taken place - two young boys have been killed in a gruesome manner, and a third boy has barely escaped. The perpetrator had recorded the horrific events on tape and this is found and leaked to the public. Everyone is predictably in an uproar. As all of this is unfolding, the two couples go through their relatively mundane activities, and the book follows this series of events until an arrest is made.
Honestly, I did not much care for this style of narration - it left too much unsaid (though I think this is also part of what the author was going for, leaving it to the reader to make assumptions/conclusions), and I did not feel engaged with any of the characters. I much prefer the Scandinavian author Karin Fossum's works. Like the author of this book, Fossum's works provide psychological insights into the minds of the characters, but the difference is that in Fossum's works, there is a balance between deep psychological exploration and the procedural aspects of solving a featured crime (I'd highly recommend The Indian Bride, When The Devil Holds a Candle, and one of the most disturbing of her works, The Water's Edge). When the conclusion arrives, it is a bit of a letdown, and left me underwhelmed. An OK read.
For such a little book, it can be a difficult read. When reading translated books - either those that work incredibly well or those that don't - it can be difficult to tell if kudos (or blame) is due to the author or the translator. I think, in this case, it's a combination of the two.
The author seems lost in minutia. Whether it's knowing that a character finished dinner at precisely 12:31 a.m. or telling us the excruciating details of table tennis matches and tooth brushing, the author has chosen to tell us just about every single thought the narrator has in this 24 hour period. In addition, because the narrator is so detached from everyone, all the characters - including the narrator - are strangely one-dimensional. While I think it's done purposefully - narrator's detachment is part of his character sketch - it becomes hard to read.
As for the translator, where do I begin? The translation is dreadfully old-fashioned. When is the last time you read about a character being "full of beans" or heard a girl friend or lover referred to as a man's "lady friend"? The most irritating phrase in the whole book is the way the narrator refers to his "lady friend" - "my partner". In modern day American Colloquialism, the words my partner refer to either your business partner or your same sex love interest.
While I think this may be a literal translation from the original - and further proof of the narrator's physiological profile - the words "my partner" are in this book at least one hundred times - and they become a real sense of irritation.
The denouement is a) not surprising as there are very few possibilities left open and b) wraps up way too quickly to be satisfying.
That's a fairly twisted premise for a story, but highly original and possessing tons of potential. But instead of taking us on an adrenaline-fuelled romp through the Austrian woods, the author treats us on a mind-numbing minute-by-minute recounting of every meaningless activity of these four dreary people. It's actually painful wading through this swamp of insignificant verbiage, as we're left mired in a festering morass of mundane minutiae.
Character development is basically nonexistent. We know almost nothing about these people except they plow through mountains of food and guzzle more wine and liquor than all the Bruces at the University of Wallamaloo.
Part of the problem here is the translation, which is unremittingly clunky, filled with awkward phrases and archaic words. The protagonist's girlfriend is constantly referred to as "my partner", rather than just using her name. They don't simply eat, they "masticate". But the main fault lies with the story, where you wait and wait for something interesting to finally happen. But nothing does until the very end, and you can probably see that one coming.
On the plus side, this book is only 108 pages long, so if for some reason you choose to read it, your pain will be short-lived.